Can a busy campaign schedule save Trump's GOP primary opponents?

We tracked who's holding the most campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

January 12, 2024, 12:23 PM

It's crunch time on the campaign trail, and presidential candidates are using every tool at their disposal to win over voters — TV commercials, Facebook posts, phone calls, house visits. One of the oldest and most intimate ways to reach voters, though, is good old-fashioned retail politics: town halls in church basements, shaking hands at a local restaurant, eating corn dogs at the state fair. But with the Iowa Republican caucuses and New Hampshire primary right around the corner, some candidates are holding a lot more campaign events than others — and some are giving a lot more love to voters in one state than in another.

For the past several months, researchers at 538 and campaign embeds at ABC News have logged every public campaign event held by a major Republican candidate for president. Here's what the data (which you can download here) reveals about each candidate's strategy.

Ramaswamy is campaigning hard. Trump, not so much.

Any analysis of campaign events in the 2024 primary must begin with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Perhaps no candidate in the modern primary era has embraced retail politicking as much as Ramaswamy has: Through Jan. 11, he has held 469 in-person campaign events nationwide — more than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the two next-most active campaigners, combined. (Although some of this may be reporting bias: Ramaswamy lists every campaign stop, no matter how small, on his website, whereas other candidates may not publicize every time they pop into a New Hampshire coffee shop.)

Ramaswamy has made his packed schedules — he has held six or more events in a day 22 times — a point of pride: "I'd rather spend time with these caucusgoers and Pizza Ranches across the state, rather than being [at] a cloistered mega donor retreat," he told USA Today. His vigorous campaign is a not-so-subtle reminder that, at age 38, he represents a new generation of politician. But it has also served an important practical purpose: It has allowed him to introduce himself to as many voters as possible — important for a candidate with no prior political experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, one candidate not holding many events is former President Donald Trump. Through Jan. 11, he has held just 93 — and they tended not to be heavy on voter interaction. Fifty-nine percent of his events were speeches or rallies, while just 17 percent were meet-and-greets or town halls. (By contrast, 64 percent of Ramaswamy's events were meet-and-greets or town halls, and 59 percent of Haley's were.)

Of course, Trump doesn't need to introduce himself to voters. As the former president, he has near-universal name recognition, and seeing as he leads national primary polls by around 50 percentage points, he can probably win without putting in much effort. Plus, to the extent he has needed to campaign, he can reach voters through their TV sets thanks to his dominance of media coverage and $38 million war chest.

Iowa, then New Hampshire, are getting all the attention

There are 50 states in the union — plus six territories that get a say in the GOP primary too. But Republican presidential hopefuls are spending a majority of their time in just two of them: Iowa and New Hampshire. Even the third, fourth and fifth jurisdictions on the GOP primary calendar aren't getting nearly the same level of attention. Through Jan. 11, the five major Republican presidential candidates who are still in the race have held 676 in-person events in Iowa and 207 in New Hampshire, but just 12 (!) in Nevada and none in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which both vote on Feb. 8. They've held 54 events in South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 24, and 200 in every other state and territory combined.

Most candidates are spending the plurality of their time in Iowa, in keeping with its prime placement on the calendar. But some candidates are definitely focusing on one of the two early states to the exclusion of the other, reflecting how crucial they are to their chances.

For example, while Ramaswamy has held the most events in both Iowa and New Hampshire, 67 percent of his total events have been in Iowa — top in the field, by far — while only 18 percent have been in New Hampshire. DeSantis has also held the second-most events in Iowa: 154, or 58 percent of his total, reflecting that state's importance to his campaign. He is polling higher in Iowa than in any early state, and there's speculation that he will drop out if he doesn't finish at least second there.

Ramaswamy has also visited every corner of the state, hoping that his attention to rural areas and small towns — many of which Trump, the Iowa front-runner, has not visited — will give him a boost there. In fact, Ramaswamy says he is the first presidential candidate in history to visit all 99 counties in Iowa, a feat known as the "full Grassley" (after Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley), twice in less than a year. (DeSantis claims to have achieved a full Grassley as well, but based on publicly available data, we could only confirm that he has visited 74 of 99 counties.)

PHOTO: A chart showing the number of campaign events and share of counties visited for each active GOP presidential candidate in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Ramaswamy has been everywhere in Iowa
Amina Brown for 538

Meanwhile, Haley is banking more on New Hampshire. She is the only active candidate who has spent more than 20 percent of her time in the Granite State, holding 32 percent of her events there (although Iowa has still hosted a plurality, 45 percent, of her events). In terms of raw numbers, her 54 events in the state are also the second-highest behind Ramaswamy. This is no coincidence: New Hampshire is home to a lot of college-educated voters, with whom Haley is strong, and few evangelicals, with whom Haley is weak. The fact that independents can vote in the GOP primary there also makes it one of the most Trump-skeptical states in the field — and Haley has become the leader of the anti-Trump "lane."

But while patterns in candidates' campaign events can tell us a lot about their campaign strategy, the jury is still out on whether their face time with voters will actually help them win votes. Political-science research on the effect of campaign visits is mixed: While some studies have found that they benefit a campaign (e.g., by getting them more donations), others have found that they do little to sway voters. Indeed, crisscrossing Iowa didn't do former Rep. John Delaney or former Rep. Joe Sestak much good in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Unfortunately for some of these candidates, media coverage and being a good fit for a state's demographic and political character may matter more than how many hands they shake.

CLARIFICATION (Jan. 12, 2024, 1:30 p.m.): This article has been updated to reflect the fact that we tracked only campaign events at which the candidate appeared in person.